A heroic act of treason: The Most Dangerous Man in America — Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
FILM: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: The trickiest thing about documentaries is separating the story from the filmmaking. The Most Dangerous Man in America has a great subject in Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked 7,000 pages of classified Pentagon documents that outline the history of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Ellsberg is the sort of subject whose story would be fascinating no matter how it’s presented, which is good, since the film isn’t presented in a particularly compelling way — at least, not at first.
Although it should be the most interesting part of the story, Ellsberg’s acquisition of the Pentagon files drags, and though he deals with some major players in the Nixon administration, the feeling of intrigue that the directors are clearly aiming for never materializes. Directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith do pull out a few stylistic tricks, using the odd animated interstitial to supplement their doc’s talking-head structure, but they never quite capture the risk of Ellsberg’s potentially treasonous espionage.
Once the files are actually stolen and the leak begins to hit the press and the public consciousness, things pick up. News clips and headlines from the mid 1970s add an immediacy that’s sorely lacking in the first half, and as momentum builds, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a bit of revolutionary fervour. In particular, watching newspapers across America print the documents despite legal threats and cease-and-desist orders from the government is enough to restore even the most jaded citizen’s faith in the institution of journalism — for a few minutes, at least.
The film’s post-script — which explains that despite the attention Ellsberg’s leaked documents received, they didn’t inspire much in the way of actual change — is both depressing and unsurprising, but Dangerous Man should be commended for spotlighting a piece of recent history that’s already all but forgotten.